Benjamin Franklin Turns 300

Article excerpt

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN TURNS 300 A new coffee-table book explains why we still celebrate the life of the oldest, and most modern, of America's founding fathers three centuries after his birth. Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World edited by Page Talbott, 396 pages, Yale University Press, $40.00

The Benjamin Franklin we all know-the familiar one from his famous autobiography-"is merely one element in the richly textured story of the man," Rosalind Remer and Page Talbott note in the foreword to Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World. The coffee-table book, published by Yale University Press, is the companion book to the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary exhibit that will tour the U.S. and end up in Paris, France, in celebration of Franklin's 300th birthday anniversary.

The book and exhibit bring together the most extensive collection of Franklin materials ever assembled, ranging from Franklin's personal hand-notated copy of the U.S. Constitution to furniture from his Philadelphia house; portraits of Franklin by noted artists, including one stolen from his house by the British during the Revolution; various of his inventions and early books and documents printed on Franklin's press; as well as colonial currency safeguarded by his own anti-counterfeiting technique.

In addition to showcasing this trove of artifacts, the book's original essays from ten noted Franklin scholars offer further insight into Franklin, the human being. Page TaIbott's depiction of Franklin at home shows the retired media mogul and his wife, Deborah, decorating their roomy Philadelphia house-he from thousands of miles away in the plush shopping environs of London, explaining his finds in letters, including this detail from one of them suggesting his abiding affection for his wife: "a large Jugg for Beer, to stand in the Cooler."

"I fell in Love with it at first Sight;" Franklin writes, "for I thought it look'd like a fat jolly Dame, clean and tidy, with a neat blue and white Calico Gown on, good natur'd and lovely, and put me in mind of-Somebody." Keeping her informed of his doings in England, Franklin even included a hand-drawn diagram of his seating arrangement for his dinner with the king of Denmark. Deborah's letters in return were marked by her "colorful," phonetic spelling, awkward grammar, and her desire to please. "Now for the room we CaIe yours thair is in it our Deske the armonekey maid like a Deske a large Cheste with all the writeings that was in your room down stairs the boxes of glases for musick and for the Elicktresatecy and all your close and the pickters as I donte drive nailes leste it shold not be write."

Ellen R. Cohn's evocation of Franklin's hugely successful mission to France from 1777 to 1785, which the stuffy John Adams described as "a Scene of continual discipation," shows Franklin in his 70s at his zenith of fame and charm. Franklin's playful and often very modern wit comes through in a letter to his French friend and drinking buddy, the abbé Morellet, in which he contends that God must exist by virtue of the "judicious placement" of the human elbow-not too far up toward the wrist or too far toward the shoulder-or else it would be impossible to get a glass of wine to one's mouth. …